Central-Phenix City held a lead over visiting Auburn High for nearly the entire second half. In an instant, that lead was gone.
With just seven seconds remaining in a crucial region battle at Garrett-Harrison Stadium, Tigers quarterback Cameron Luper hit running back Cameron Reese across the middle. Reese turned, sprinted down the sideline and dove into the corner of the end zone to give Auburn a come-from-behind 18-17 win.
That play came to fruition because of a penalty on the previous play, a fourth-down pass that fell incomplete. Central was whistled for a pass interference, however, giving Auburn the second chance it needed to win the game.
"It was a tough loss," Central offensive coordinator Ryan Nelson said after the game, disappointment etched across his face. "The kids played hard. They did exactly what we asked them to do."
With the loss, Central (5-2, 3-2 Region 3-6A) drops to fourth in the region behind one-loss teams Auburn (6-1, 4-1), Carver-Montgomery (6-1, 4-1) and Opelika (6-1, 4-1). With a win, Central would have been in first place.
"You could tell the game had a lot of region implications," Nelson said.
Central fell behind early when Auburn put two field goals on the board, but the defense tightened up and the offense started to come to life.
Central quarterback Jamal Howard struggled to find his targets early, but a 67-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter that was tipped and corralled by running back Deon Hall seemed to put the junior on track. The touchdown put Central ahead 7-6, a lead they would hold until the waning moments of the game.
Central quickly added to its lead on the first drive of the third quarter when Howard completed passes of 35, 38 and 23 yards. The 28-yarder went to sophomore athlete Traveon Samuel, and the other two went to wide receiver Khaled Berklin, the latter for a touchdown to put Central ahead 14-6 with 8:50 left in the third.
Overall, Howard completed 9 of 16 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns.
"Jamal played outstanding in the second half," Nelson said. "We have a lot of inexperienced players, and that showed in the first half. But our kids battled hard in the second."
So did Auburn, and Nelson was quick to commend the Tigers on their impressive finish.
"Hats off to Auburn," he said. "That's a great football team with a great quarterback, a great running back, great defenders and a great coach."
Auburn battled back quickly after Central's second touchdown. Blaise Taylor returned the kickoff 51 yards to the Central 47, and Luper did the rest for the Tigers.
He had runs of 2 and 5 yards before busting a 35-yarder on the fourth play of the drive, avoiding four tacklers and outrunning the defense to the end zone. A two-point conversion attempt failed, leaving Auburn behind 14-12.
Auburn nearly drove down and scored again on its next drive, but Central's Christopher James intercepted a pass in the end zone to preserve the Central lead.
Central followed that with a 18-play drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock. The drive ended with a 23-yard field goal from Chandler Chancellor, however, leaving the door open for Auburn's end-game heroics.
Central coach Woodrow Lowe didn't have much to say after the game, electing not to speak with the media.
"I don't have much to say after that," he said. "We lost because of a lack of discipline."
Central will go back to work next week in another region contest against Sidney Lanier.
Friday at Garrett-Harrison Stadium
Auburn 6 0 6 6--18
Central 0 7 7 3--17
A--Flanagan 40 field goal, 8:11
A--Flanagan 43 field goal, 2:10
C--Hall 67 pass from Howard (Chancellor kick), 3:23
C--Berklin 23 pass from Howard (Chancellor kick), 8:50
A--Luper 35 run (run failed), 7:02
C--Chancellor 23 field goal, 6:42
A--Reese 26 pass from Luper (kick failed), :7.6
Team records: Auburn 6-1, 4-1; Central 5-2, 3-2 Next: Auburn, Oct. 18 at R.E. Lee; Central, Oct. 19 vs. Sidney Lanier